NEW YORK — I couldn’t be less chill, not after sitting through the insipid “Be More Chill” for the second time. I saw it last year off-Broadway, a perch on which it landed by virtue of the mad crush many young folk developed for a cast recording that streamed online long before a New York engagement was ever in the works.
It is, in that sense, the first musical to click its way onto Broadway, where it had its official opening at the Lyceum Theatre on Sunday. And, boy, were my misgivings from my initial encounter confirmed. “Be More Shrill” would be a better title for director Stephen Brackett’s heinously overamplified and overacted production, built on the story of a nerd played by the intrepid Will Roland, who takes a magic pill to become popular with the high school “in” crowd.
With “Mean Girls,” “Dear Evan Hansen” and “The Prom” already exploring in up-tempo dance numbers the vicissitudes of outcast adolescents, “Be More Chill” enters Broadway’s highest-occupancy lane, in the clunkiest vehicle of them all. You get the feeling that Joe Iconis’s score — with lyrics often resorting to doggerel — and Joe Tracz’s satire-laced book might have retained some measure of charm in less hyperventilating style and more intimate surroundings.
As it is, though, “Be More Chill” is delivered in such relentlessly breathless fashion that every song in the program list of musical numbers should be hashtagged #OMGOMGOMG. Yes, we know, high schoolers live secretly or out loud in hysterical, anxiety-ridden overdrive. But 2½ hours of teenage insecurities turned into pop opéra bouffe make for a patience-trying endurance test for all but the most tolerant observers.
“Be More Chill” was born in 2015 in a production at a New Jersey theater that drew critical yawns, but the cast album became a sensation, streaming more than 100 million times in the United States, according to the New York Times. What else could a group of enterprising producers do but try to capitalize on that magnitude of fan intensity? The show’s Faustian underpinnings concern the questionable inroads with his peers made by Roland’s Jeremy. They’re activated after he swallows the pill that unlocks a “Matrix”-adjacent computer entity played by Jason Tam. It is this silly contrivance that guides Jeremy’s increasingly callous behavior. (Roland, it should be noted, was an original cast member of the far, far superior “Dear Evan Hansen.”)
But more than in its wish-fulfillment premise, “Be More Chill’s” power may derive from a certain facile cheesiness: an intentional insincerity in which some subset of theatergoers can indulge a callow notion of sophistication that says trust nothing — and certainly, least of all, the falseness of theater.
That conceit, though, probably plays better in a high school auditorium than a Broadway theater. My preview audience seemed a bit mystified by the enthusiasm generated in some quarters that has paved the way to this unveiling in the big time. In the Lyceum, you could feel the chill.
Be More Chill, music and lyrics by Joe Iconis, book by Joe Tracz. Directed by Stephen Brackett. Choreography, Chase Brock; sets, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Bobby Frederick Tilley II; lighting, Tyler Micoleau; sound, Ryan Rumery. About 2½ hours. At Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., New York. 212-239-6200. telecharge.com.